Sue Prom helped organize the "Mush for a Cure" sled-dog race to raise money to fight breast cancer five years ago, a fundraiser that was humming along nicely until it received a letter from an attorney for the organization Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
Komen, best known for its pink ribbons, Mother's Day runs and other mega-fundraisers for breast cancer research, asked Prom to stop using the phrase "for a cure" and to halt its request for a Mush for a Cure trademark.
"It was like, 'You've got to be kidding,'" said Prom, whose all-volunteer fundraiser outside Grand Marais, Minn., raised about $30,000 last year.
"People are donating money to this organization [Komen] to fight cancer -- not to fight another organization fighting breast cancer."
The dispute points to the growing concerns over branding and trademark issues among nonprofits. Once reserved for squabbles between for-profit organizations, the pink ribbons, logos and catchy phrases linked to charities are being fiercely protected as competition for donations grows, especially on the Internet.
"It used to be that there were local groups with the same name, but they didn't know about each other," said Jon Pratt, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. "Now it's a lot easier to research. And as online donations become more important, you want a single identity online."
Komen has asked dozens of groups to cease using "for the cure" or "for a cure," according to national media reports. Komen spokeswoman Andrea Rader would not confirm the figure, but said Komen monitors U.S. Patent and Trademark Office filings to protect its brand and donors.
"There is a potential for donors to make assumptions," Rader said. "We want them to be confident that if they want to donate to Susan G. Komen, that their money is going to Susan G. Komen."
Komen dropped its objection to the dog-sledding fundraiser earlier this year, Prom said, shortly after NBC News highlighted the plight of Mush for a Cure and a New York group called Kites for a Cure. In April, a certificate arrived in her mailbox giving her the trademark for "Mush for a Cure."
"It's a real balancing act for nonprofits," said Jim Steffen, a Minneapolis attorney who specializes in trademark law. "On one hand, nonprofits don't want to stamp down the enthusiasm of people contributing to causes. And they don't want to spend a lot of money on lawyers."
That said, when two nonprofit names or logos are similar, it can confuse the public and donors -- who could wind up unintentionally funding the wrong charity, Steffen said.
Likewise, if a charity with a similar-sounding name gets into hot water, the legitimate charity "can be tarred by the bad actions of others," he said.
Admission Possible, a widely known Twin Cities nonprofit that has helped low-income students enroll in colleges for 11 years, is the latest casualty of trademark conflicts. It was given permission to use its name in Minnesota and surrounding states a decade ago by a for-profit California company that does similar work. When the Minnesota group decided to expand nationally, its request for permission to operate under its name was denied.
Last week the nonprofit notified supporters it would have a new name by September.
"It's disappointing," said Admission Possible spokesperson Emily Jacobs. "When you lose your name, you lose the brand equity and recognition that goes with it to key audiences -- students, donors, community supporters."
Geena Davis vs. Duluth
It's not just nonprofit names or catch phrases being contested. It can be intellectual property rights as well. Actress Geena Davis sued a small Duluth nonprofit, Dads & Daughters, in 2007 over the ownership of a program dealing with how girls are depicted in the media.
Joe Kelly, a founder of Dads & Daughters, said he had been approached by Davis to have his nonprofit administer the educational project. Davis became its public spokesperson. But the lawsuit claimed that the project belonged to Davis.
The case was settled out of court and the project eventually moved to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Dads & Daughters, which had been struggling prior to the lawsuit, closed later that year.
Large national charities are particularly alert to trademark infringements, in part because of their historic investments in brand and reputation. The American Red Cross, for example, is particularly aggressive during natural disasters, such as in Haiti, when it learns other groups are using its red trademark, said spokesman Roger Low.
The American Heart Association gets about 20 reports a year from supporters across the country about improper use of trademarks, said David Livingston, its general counsel.
Most are from for-profit organizations, such as medical device companies or diet plans, that imply an endorsement by the association, he said. Others are from nonprofits, often launching fundraising events, he said.
The association is much more "deferential" with fellow nonprofits, he added.
Is it possible to patrol the use of a common image such as a heart? Livingston says it's not just the image. It's also the context of the image and whether the group is using other language or logos similar to the association.
Meanwhile, Prom remains disillusioned by the whole issue of trademark violations.
"We raised thousands of dollars for breast cancer and don't pay ourselves a dime," she said. "Then someone with really deep pockets tries to make life difficult for you. It's not a warm fuzzy feeling you get from a beloved brand."
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511